Category Archives: design

Pondering plants and placement

As a landscape architect, I take pleasure in thinking through the meaning, limitations, structure, seasonality, texture, color, and composition of plantings that I work on. My rain garden in our parkway is no exception.

I had a couple of years to think about this and began to formalize my objectives over the winter months:

  • Don’t solve problems by throwing money at it. Design by being mindful about resources.
  • Rely on native plants that evolved to deal with our natural history and climate and thus provide resilience and longevity.
  • Select those native plants that would be suitable for a rain garden environment.
  • Develop a composition that could be reproduced in variations in other locations.
  • Aim for an end result that communicates care, value, and pride.
  • Keep the planting design simple enough so that it could be maintained without the knowledge of a master gardener.
  • Break some rules.

Why didn’t I mention color, texture or succession? Well, they are not objectives, they are
Prerequisites. And before I get too far along, let’s quickly talk about the big word: Nature.

I will be using native plants, but I’d like to think that I am humble enough to realize that I will not re-create nature or a prairie ecosystem. I intend to borrow from it and demonstrate how to use our native plants successfully in a horticultural context. But that is as far as I dare to aim.

With this framework in place, I could move on to the next one. Let’s call it the…

…Functional framework

To keep the rain garden functioning, I need to maintain the soil’s infiltration capacity – or, even better, improve it. The extensive and fibrous root systems of our native prairie grasses and sedges do just that.

Yet, my parkway doesn’t come close to the vastness of a prairie. And most prairie grasses are tall, which makes them a perfect fit for vast landscapes, but not for my molecular sized rain garden. To achieve a level of proportionality, I will have to rely on a groundcover matrix of sedge species that are smaller, more compact, and a better fit for the space. In this case, I will largely rely on Carex sprengelii (Long-beaked Sedge) and Carex vulpinoidea (Fox Sedge).

The sedges themselves would provide a stunning rain garden for most seasons. Still, I would like to add some structure, texture, contrast, and seasonality.

From color to contrast

Two Baptisa australis (Blue Wild Indigo) that flank the path at the side yard gate will add structure, along with two Amsonia hubrichtii (Blue Star) in the east end and one more at the west end of the parkway landscape. A number of Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah’ (Switchgrass) that are spaced between the Baptisia and Amsonia will continue the layering of heights. Yet the upright Panicum will contrast with both, the round shaped Baptisia and Amsonia.

The flowering season is opened with Mertensia virginica (Virginia Bluebells), Geranium maculatum (Wild Geranium) and hybrid Aquilegia (Columbine). May and June would be dominated by the display from the Baptisia. The summer display may vary, because this is where I like to break the rules. Rather than relying on native perennials, I plan on using annuals, which may vary from year to year. This year I will start with a yellow-orange-red collection of hybrid Coreopsis and Dahlia.

Another rule breaker is the addition of two non-native geophytes: Daffodils and purple Alliums.

Autumn will be illuminated by the stunning fall colors of the Amsonia hubrichtii and Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah’. To complement the range of golden-red hues, I added Symphyotrichum novae-angliae ‘Purple Dome’ (New England Aster), with its purple flowers and yellow centers. (The purple flowers are actually bracts and the yellow center are the actual flowers).

Native plants have the stigma of delivering a wild and unruly look. That is not surprising considering that a considerable number of homeowners risk cardiac arrest upon the discovery of a clover leave in their lawn.

And this is why color composition, texture, and seasonality are important. They distract – or, even better – re-focus the observer’s attention. They create a new narrative that communicates care and intent, which is a juxtaposition to what is typically perceived as un-tame native plants.

While working with combinations of flower and fall colors is interesting, what really captivates me is textures and contrasts. Yet I can’t take credit for composition, because my inspirations came from stunning scenes I observed in Illinois’ and Wisconsin’s remnant prairies.

One such scene was the contrast between the superbly coarse texture of Silphium terebinthinaceum (Prairie Dock) splattered amongst a sea of delicately fine textured grasses, sedges, or rushes.


A scene that is picture-made for a garden environment, as it can be reproduced even at smaller scales.

The matrix of sedges and solitary Amsonia provide the beautiful yet delicate fine texture that is then interrupted four times by the majestic leaves of the Silphium. And yes, the Silphium has flowers that provide a spectacle on their own – but this is really about the contrast in texture, not the color or towering flowers.

The Silphium continues to draw the eye into the winter season, when its majestic leaves begin to curl and turn gray-brown with white speckles. The Panicum provides a remarkable contrast with its golden-reddish shafts against the pure white snow while the seed pods of the Baptisia with their blackish shell and silvery interior are reminiscent of elegant early 20th century black and white photography.

Committing to a native plant pallet in a design comes with its limitations. And that, as it turns out, can be a good thing. It’s something that keeps driving the creative process. Rather than getting bogged down by what a list of natives doesn’t provide, we begin to discover and explore their unique features and elements, whether it is the eye candy part or the functional element – managing stormwater.

Related posts:

Parkway rain garden planning

Did I mention that I would like to convert our parkway into a rain garden? In case you haven’t read the previous posts, let me mention it again.

A rain garden is a shallow excavated and vegetated area that allows stormwater runoff to infiltrate into the ground. That begs the question: where will the stormwater for my parkway rain garden come from?

The contributing area

The adjacent concrete sidewalk will contribute some runoff, but not much, because the sidewalk surface area is actually smaller than the parkway rain garden.

The stormwater that I would really like to manage in the rain garden comes from the street and gutter. Surface drainage on our street is poor and we always end up with standing water in the gutter – sometimes for a couple of days, and sometimes for a couple of weeks. I would like to drain and infiltrate the street runoff into the parkway.

With that goal established, I could look at the appropriate rain garden depth and storage capacity. The elevation of our curb averaged around three inches above the gutter. The top of the curb roughly equaled the grade elevation in the parkway.

To manage the street runoff from the half of the street bordering the parkway (924 square feet), I should plan for a six inch ponding depth across the 470 square feet of rain garden. At a tested infiltration rate of two inches per hour, the parkway rain garden should be able to handle the 100 year design storm for the 924 square feet of contributing area.

The issue of conveyance

The next big question was, how do I get the runoff into the rain garden? I have a street curb that is in the way.

Typically one would rely on curb cuts to allow the water to flow from the street and gutter into the rain garden. But this is not my curb and I don’t want to get into trouble with the City. Whatever I do has to be easily reversible in case they end up not liking what I am doing.

I think I’ll start by drilling a number of one inch holes through the curb at the gutter low spots. Those holes can be easily filled and patched if needed. But because the holes only allow a limited amount of volume to flow through at any time, I may not be able to get all the runoff from intense downpours into the rain garden. So even though the rain garden could manage a 100 year design storm, the limited conveyance capacity may reduce that effectiveness.

I also will have the issue of maintenance. There is always a lot of debris in the gutter, which could clog the one inch holes. I will probably have to check on those holes a couple of times a month to keep them clear.

And I have two paths crossing the parkway, which leaves me with three rain garden cells. To connect these cells hydraulically, I incorporated PVC pipes under the path. This way runoff can easily flow from one rain garden cell into the other.

Related posts:

Fussing over fence details

My nicely aligned posts alone won’t make a fence. I had to make up my mind about the fence panels, so let’s get back to basics for a minute:

Using metal in the fence panels is a risky proposition as it might get snatched by scavengers overnight. Instead, we opted to use pressure treated lumber. We installed the four by four fence posts, and I planned to use two by fours for the fence rails.

The rails alone won’t suffice. I needed a somewhat solid fence panel to keep trash from blowing into the rain garden vegetation. I considered a whole gamut of ideas, but let me make this short.

The concept of woven fence panels persisted. Woven, like wicker furniture or an old fashioned willow basket. This would add a level of surprise or contrast, as it would not be expected in an urban context. Yet I’d have to make it sufficiently robust to persist through the urban pressures.

And this is where I had to rely on metal after all: half inch or number four rebar. While I still wanted to use a wooden material like willow for the horizontal weft, the vertical warp had to be rebar.

But how could I prevent the rebar from growing legs at night? By slipping it through a pre-drilled top rail and into a three quarter inch hole in the bottom rail. A handrail attached to the top rail would lock the rebar in place.

One problem was solved, but another one was created. I ended up with two very different fences in close proximity: the woven panel knee fence around the parkway and our typical Chicago style black metal yard fence.

Patchworks of different style can generate something visually stimulating. But in this case, creating a connection between these two different enclosures and as such weaving the parkway landscape into the remaining landscape on our property would be more inviting. Rather than passing a semi-public landscape on the parkway side and a private landscape behind the property fence, we would prefer to invite observers to pass through an extension of our private landscape, which reaches all the way to the curb.

How could I begin to weave those two landscape together? Literally by weaving. I could use the same willow material that I plan on using in the knee fence panels, and weave a solid panel into the bottom our our yard fence. The added benefit would be that even more blowing trash close to the ground will be blocked by semi-solid paneling and kept out of our plantings.

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Entitled to good design?

Dead of winter. No sun and freezing temperatures for the past week. This is the perfect time to dream about garden stuff. The sweet smell of spring. The tender touch of warm air. The songbird symphonies at sunrise. The enjoyable emergence of the first green sprouts.

Our problem is, we don’t have a garden – yet. We have the space, but we haven’t done anything with it, other than a raised vegetable planter, some planters on our back porch, and planters on our front porch.

To soothe my green itch, I had decided to tackle our parkway landscape first. I planned ahead and started growing my own plant material, which came along nicely. I also was able to score a hickory as a parkway tree, which miraculously survived the transplanting.

The big picture

But public landscapes – or landscapes in the public realm such as our parkway – are complicated. They need some deliberate design to succeed. It was time to step back and look at the big picture.

“People who live in poor communities […] are entitled to good design. I’d love to see good buildings, an aesthetically engaging place. … [A] smart, clever, interesting place to live—and one that looks good.”


This quote by my friend and former Director of the North Lawndale NHS office, the late Charles Leeks, sums it up nicely.


Our grassy parkway may look good to many, particularly if compared to other stretches nearby (typically owned by investors). But it is hardly good design, nor smart, clever or interesting. It ought to accommodate a stimulating and functioning landscape – a landscape that performs and gives back. A landscape that communicates care, value, and pride in a community that feels left behind and ignored.

Inserting care, value, and pride may seem like common objectives, yet they rarely have reached North Lawndale over the past few decades. That makes it all the more important that we share these objectives in our semi-public landscape, the parkway, and use it to engage with our community.

The nuts and bolts

If the parkway landscape is to be successful, we have to account for the ever present urban pressures.

Vandalism can be reduced in landscapes that communicate care and pride. Moreover, care and pride may generate a level of ownership among the nearby community, which in turn may be quick to call out and disrupt vandalism when it happens.

Street parking has to be addressed. An 18 inch wide paved strip along the curb would allow for passengers to get out of their cars without stepping into the landscape. A knee fence alongside the paved strip would further prevent exiting passengers from stepping into the landscape and from having car doors swinging into the vegetation.

We have a school and kindergarten down the street from us. Each afternoon when school lets out, we have a lot of kids with pent up energy flying down the street, across sidewalks and parkways. If our parkway landscape is to survive at all, it needs a knee fence all the way around, not just along the curb side.

Blowing trash has the pesky habit of accumulating in plantings and it is a lot of work to continually pick it out. Because most of the trash is blowing around close to the ground, a knee fence with some solid panelling should keep it out.

We have some material limitations. Even though metal seems to be the first choice for fencing, I worry about scavengers, in particular with a knee fence in the parkway. Even if we can generate ownership through care and pride, it may not be enough protection the fence from planned theft. Whatever the material is, it can’t be metal.

Surface drainage on our street is poor. After each decent rain, we have standing water in the gutter until it dries up. That can be days, sometimes a week or two. Turning our parkway landscape into a rain garden and draining the street gutter into it would keep the street dry and the stormwater where it belongs: in the ground. Lowering the parkway’s elevation, would create the perfect trap for blowing trash, however, since it likes to accumulate in low spots. That’s one more reason for a knee fence with solid panelling.

For the rain garden to successfully infiltrate street runoff, I will have to rely on native prairie grasses and sedges. Their root system keeps the soil open and sustains good infiltration levels. We must keep in mind that plantings with prairie grasses and sedges can result in a somewhat wild look.


We learned on our 168 Elm pilot project that this wild look, if juxtaposed with carefully crafted hardscape, communicates care and pride and can make for an aesthetically engaging, smart, clever, and interesting landscape – which takes us full circle.

Related posts:

The back porch project

And a project it is!

We knew pretty much from the beginning that the back porch would need to be replaced. It may look sort of OK from the outside, but the bones are rather ailing.

Because it was an enclosed porch, we had planned to rebuild it as an enclosed porch. That got us into a whole lot of trouble, starting with zoning. Not only did we have to apply for an administrative adjustment because our building set backs weren’t right, but we also found out that the currently existing enclosed porch was never permitted. Setting this right rested on our shoulders. The good news is that another administrative adjustment and a $250 fee got us a permit for a new enclosed porch.



Nice porch, isn’t it? And expensive, too, as we quickly found out. We knew that we didn’t want to spend that kind of money, but still tip-toed around the issue for a couple of years. Then, our neighbors got their back porch replaced – a typical open, Chicago-style back porch. That made us realize that an enclosed back porch is more a “want” than a “need.”

We already have 1,500 square feet of living space on the 1st and 2nd floor – which is a lot for an old building like ours. Adding another 250 square feet of conditioned space seemed too much of a luxury, certainly at that price tag.

Changing plans

So, we decided to instead build an open porch, with the exception of the basement level where we can have a workshop and tool and bicycle storage. We also decided to keep the roof access to our future vegetable garden, the PV, and the Solar Hot Water panels.


We also decided to keep our options open. If we want to turn the back porch into a three season room or sleeping porch at one point, we should be able to do so. That would require us to waterproof each porch floor, but we can plan for that.

The building permit we currently have includes the porch … except that the porch we now plan on building is different from the porch on the permit plans. I hate to admit it, but we need to pull another building permit, just for the porch.

This time around I won’t have to do it, but rather we will have our porch contractor take care of it. It’s nice to have that task delegated, except that the contractor isn’t a great communicator. Let’s see where that will take us…

While we wait for the plans and permit, I have some serious prep work to do, like that old grease trap, which we temporarily turned into a sump pit.

Related posts:

Zoning surprise

Zoning – the process

Dusting off the wish list

The green roof dream

Grease trap cleaning

Nail biter